ICology: The engagement gap between leaders and employees

Ep #19, Bev Attfield with Jostle

Bev Attfield is the director of tactical marketing for Jostle, a software company focused on connecting employees through a different type of intranet. Recently, Jostle published an interesting white paper and ebook on the Employee Engagement Gap. What they found is that executives and employees have differing view on the status of engagement, creating a gap. 

In this episode, Bev talks about the researching and findings from this report they worked with Brian Solis on. It's a new way of looking at employee engagement for those who are tired of seeing the same statistics over and over. 

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Episode Transcript

Chuck: Welcome to ICology, the podcast dedicated to interesting people doing interesting things in the world of internal communications. In this episode we have special guest, Bev Attfield from Jostle. If internal comms is your passion, then this is your podcast. Listen in. 

Are you tired of hearing about employee engagement? And it seems like there is a growing community of people, especially in internal comms that I feel are beginning to shut out conversations and content around engagement. And it's a shame because this is just the time when so many corporate leaders are finally starting to tune in to engagement. Now I think some of those who are tuning out are doing so because they're tired of doing the same data and same statistics, and the same analogies over and over just being regurgitated across multiple different platforms.

And arguably the biggest challenge facing engagement topics is that everyone, or different organizations, basically have their own definitions. And I think that's okay as long as you recognize what those differences are, and then use the data appropriately and recognize where there might be some inconsistence. So I'm asking communicators to stay engaged in engagement conversation. There's new data coming out all the time and solid research being done to help you as communicators at your business.

And this is why I invited our guest on today. She is with organization who's identified gap in engagement and it might be one you haven't considered or thought was that relevant, but I think it is. So Bev Attfield is a Director of Technical Marketing for Jostle. Bev, welcome to ICology.

Bev: Thanks very much Chuck. It's great to be here with you today.

Chuck: And very pleased to have you on here as well. For those who aren't familiar with Jostle, explain who you are and what you do?

Bev: So Jostle is based in Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada and at our core, our philosophy is that we're on a quest to make workplaces better. And that sounds very lofty and it certainly is, but in order to do that we've created a software product which is cloud-based, which is basically a new kind of internet.

And we're helping the organizations to cut across those traditional barriers of role and location and mind-set, which were previously really limiting to internal communications and discussions in collaboration. And we've just seen through the success of our customers that our platform is really helping empower employees to communicate quite richly.

Chuck: Creating a better workplace. That is quite lofty.

Bev: It absolutely is, and it's really what drives us forward in not only in iterating our product, you create something that customers can really use to bring about change in their businesses, but it keeps us dialed into that conversation about what can you actually do to make your business better and make your people more engaged. How can you build and sustain workplace that really meets the basic needs that every human feels at work?

And in doing so, satisfies those key requirements of business success, whether it be profitability, sales or whatever the case might be. There are certain requirements that have to be met in every part of a business. So that's why we turn our eyes to topics like employee engagement, because even though we create an intranet, which at our core is what we build as a product, we have identified that there are certain areas that need to be improved in workplaces. And one of those is certainly engagement. And we spend a lot of time studying what makes workplaces more vibrant and productive.

Chuck: Let's start digging into the background of this engagement gap white paper that you've created. I think I came across it on social media, which I strongly encourage internal communicators to spend more time in LinkedIn and Twitter and other places, because it's just a wealth of information out there. This is where I came across your white paper.

I thought it was very interesting that you worked with a gentleman Brian Solis as part of the project. So describe a little bit about what it was to work with Brian on this and also a little bit of background around who you interviewed, how many people were part of the study, that sort of thing.

Bev: Sure. So just a little bit of background I guess why we write things like this white paper. So, we want work to be a place where people can feel that they belong and they're valued, and they have resources at their fingertips to do great work. So not only we are creating this product which is at its core an intranet, but we also spend a lot of time studying what makes workplaces more vibrant and productive. And employee engagement has become a key measure of how vibrant and productive your workplace actually is.

So we had many conversations with Brian Solis who is, he's a leading researcher and analyst in this area, and we decided that we were going to set about to talk to executives and employees about how they actually feel about engagement. And we didn't come across any material in our research prior to this around how the executive body and the employee body actually differ on their opinion about employee engagement. And we thought that was rather odd, because that seems rather obvious that you should understand where both parties are coming from and make sure that you are both headed at the same direction.

So this lead to the survey that we conducted of over 300 employees and executives, and it was about two thirds, one third split, employees to executives. And we were very fortunate to have Brian Solis to work with us to analyze and review the results, which lead to the development of the white paper. Which had some really fascinating outcomes which we're going to get into a little bit later on in this chat.

Chuck: So talking about some of those outcomes, what are the major disconnects either that the research showed you or that you guys are seeing as just being part of the space in the engagement discussions at companies?

Bev: Certainly. So there were three key disconnects that came out of the research. And then of course there is a lot of anecdotal information that we received back from our customers as well in terms of what sort of pain points they're feeling about employee engagement. I'll quickly touch on those three disconnects that are grounded in the survey results.

So the first major disconnect is that executives and employees have completely different views about employee engagement and the things that organizations are doing or trying to do improve it. And that leads to what we're calling the engagement gap. So it's this delta that has been created where employees and executives are coming at this from completely different perspectives and they're not aligned in their thinking about it.

And then secondly, we found that it's not the executives don't get the importance of engagement, it's really that they don't yet see it as a problem and as a result they're focusing their time on the wrong things. So it's the picnics and the perks and the lunches that are being supported internally by executives, but they're actually missing out on what employees really need. And that is executives helping them understand how works matters or what gives their work purpose. And we found a very strong correlation between employees feeling that their work matters and their level of engagement. And we'll get into that point a little bit later.

Then lastly the third problem is that employee engagement programs are commonly focused on certainly trying to improve internal communications. And as often happens with communication, there is disconnect here because what executives want to talk about and what employees want to talk about are actually quite different. So that leads to another significant gap in engaging employees because they're not getting the information that they think they need in order to feel engaged.

Chuck: I think one of the areas, this sort of go back to the intro, something that I mentioned, that people struggle with engagement. It can be difficult to define for many, or they come up with their own definition for engagement. But I like in the report, you guys went way back, way, way back to 1990s and William Con's research. So what did you find there about engagement?

Bev: Well we certainly, I agree with what you said about employee engagement being very hard to define. It's complicated topic and it's a very topical topic. And it's even harder to develop metrics for it as it is to define it. So it's really difficult to measure it in some shape or form. And so while we were doing this research, we felt that we need to just dig a bit deeper into the roots of where this term, employee engagement, actually came from. And we came across William Con.

So he was a professor of organizational behavior at Boston University and he did an extensive body of research in the early '90s that focused on what we now today call employee engagement. And he observed that in essence, employees have a choice of how much they are going to invest in their jobs. And he found that people are much more engaged when certain base needs of psychological safety, purpose and availability are met.

And interestingly, what we thought was incredibly useful and notable is that things like pay and perks didn't feature at all in Con's research results. So these gave us some really good clues as to some of the learnings that we were going to glean from our survey, which we did. Which I will chat about a little bit later if there is an opportunity to do so.

Chuck: Well, and getting into some of the data, one of the interesting stats I found out there was that you guys discovered that 99% of executives believed that their employees have a major impact of their company's success. So what I want to know, who's the 1% of executives who don't think employees have an impact?

Bev: Well, that's a really, really good question Chuck, and we pondered and had a giggle about this extensively when we were processing and analyzing the results. And we have no way of knowing what they're thinking. We'd love to know, but we don't. We can't go back and ask them. What we do know is that clearly the 1% has a much harder, longer road ahead of them to close the engagement gaps in their organizations if they don't even depart with the feeling that employees majorly affect a company's success.

Chuck: And another interesting step that I liked is out of a 10 scale, 1 to 10 scale, executives ranked employee engagement as 8.3 out of a 10. Which if you think the number of people reply, answer...obviously there were people the scored it much higher than 8.3, maybe 9s or 10s, some people a bit lower. But that seems pretty good. So do executives see engagement as a problem if it is a priority?

Bev: Well I think what we understood from the data is that it's not that they don't get the importance of engagement, because 8.3 isn't a bad score. It's just that they don't yet see it as a problem or have not escalated it to be the pressing priority that it is. And I think as a result of this, they're actually focusing on doing the wrong things or they're just doing something to check a box to make themselves feel better that they are actually doing something to engage their employees. And furthermore, I do think that some employees believe that their engagement efforts are actually more effective than they truly are in practice. 

Chuck: No, I've seen that from my own experience and I know it's somewhat cliché to talk about when after they annual survey and they pull together the committee, and there's these items that are pulled together, these five things we're going to do. And then when one those five things are done, it's not anything 'till next year. So I see how there could be some of that disconnect.

And then back to this point around as gap between what employees believe is engagement and then what executives believe is engagement. Discuss how that gap wideness when executive’s priorities aren't aligned with, you shared earlier, what employees want or need.

Bev: So we measure the size of the gap by the differences in the perspective between employees and executives when it comes to things like contentment and satisfaction. So naturally that gap wideness when employee needs and aspirations are misaligned with executive priorities and assumptions. And I think the more that executives claim to value employees but failed to act on engaging them in authentic and lasting ways, the wider the gap becomes.

So it's almost this constant spiral where executives are taking actions, but they're the wrong actions and then employees are not getting what they need. So each of the parties is sort of moving away from one another, instead of them actually coming closer together and bridging that gap that does exist.

Chuck: And this is one I sort of struggle with, so apologies if I go round and round on this next one. It was interesting, of the respondents you have, half said they work with companies with engagement programs. So you say half do, say they have it, half say they don't.

I've always wondered about statistics like this. I guess it could be part of it, that the half that they said they don't, there could be some sort of engagement program and they just aren't aware of it. And I guess to a bigger picture, should employees be aware of an engagement program? Because then does it feel too forced? Is it too like the picnics and the parties? It's something I struggle with when we talk about something as a program. Should they be aware of it?

Bev: Yeah, this was an interesting topic that we kicked around quite a bit when we were analyzing the results. So yes, about half of the respondents were either employees or executives in organizations that had a formal engagement program. And yes, it sis entirely possible some of the remaining 50% or the other half do exist in environments that have engagement programs that these are either not formalized or not very well publicized. So those respondents might not have even be aware there was a program in place.

So I think the question that this raises for me, or for us, is how does engagement involve in an organization, and how should it be communicated within that organization? So should it be formulated and structured, and really implemented in a very strategic way? Or should it simply be an organic part of an organization's DNA?

And I think it does depend on many, many things. It depends on at the type of the organization, the management structure, the history, the growth trajectory, etc. But I think there's a really interesting debate to be had here and maybe this is a topic for another podcast. But a debate on the nature and nurture of employee engagement, because I think it really would be a very fascinating conversation around further delving into how these actually respond to employee engagement programs that are formalized verses those things that just happen naturally.

How does that affect people's adoption and interest in those activities? Because some people can be quite resistant to constantly being asked to participate in things, whereas maybe that's missing the mark. That's not actually the way that you should be trying to engage your employees.

Chuck: Yeah, because it seems like, based on the research I did, both executives and employees alike aren't really that enamored with their engagement programs anyway.

Bev: Yeah, there's definitely cause for concern with engagement programs, and it's clear from our body of research that what's currently in play is definitely not working. So on average, employees across the survey rated their own overall engagement at a fairly mediocre 5.5 out 10. And in those with an engagement program, only bumped up their average to 5.9 out of 10 and those without were 4.7 on average.

So essentially what we can tell from the results is that most businesses are leaning towards a failing grade for engagement in the eyes of employees. And that's with or without a program. And then if we look at the executive side of the story, which is only slightly different, those companies with active engagement programs, their executives rate employee engagement at an average 6.6 out of 10, and those without were at 5.2 out of 10. So even though the executives are a little bit more optimistic relative to employees, they too are only giving themselves an average D+ if we use the school test result terminology. And that's even with an employee engagement program.

So I think it's a fairly sad state of affairs, and it's probably not surprising then to discover that bodies of research like those conducted by Gallup discovered that actively disengaged employees are costing companies $500 billion a year in lost productivity. So there's so much being focused and committed to these programs and to these efforts, and yet employees, they're actively disengaging. So it is a real cause for concern.

Chuck: Well I have to say, I don't mind the D+ grade. Because I guess at that point I feel people are being honest with their feedback. It might not be comfortable honestly, it might not make you feel good, but at least I feel they are being truthful in how they feel about it.

And the next part, which I think is for the communicators that are listening in, is going to be some tough data that you guys found out about. But when looking at internal comms channels and the direct impact that has on engagement, it's not good. The numbers were not good. And from a true channel prospective, recognition was the highest, but still, still very disappointing numbers. So I'm going to put you in a tough spot here. Is this to say that internal comms content really isn't moving the needle, having any impact related to engagement, or is it perception problem around communication? 

Bev: Yes, so unfortunately the news isn't good for internal communications from what we learned in the survey. But I think the results do provide some positive information in that it does support the existence of the engagement gap and it offers clues what can be done to close the gap. So yes, as you indicated, so recognition did rank as one of the highest channels along with things like small group meetings for execs and employees also ranked quite high.

And this was surprising, because I think these channels have the opportunity or potential to be more meaningful and more impactful than the others, so more human if you will. So I think that employees naturally lean towards feeling that those types of channels are more, they can connect with it more easily and they are more meaningful.

But to answer your question more specifically, I think the problem really is a combination of content and perception. So to one of your earlier points, I think that there is a tremendous amounts of cynicism and lethargy from employees particularly regarding internal communications. And especially channels such as newsletters, those town hall meetings where leaders get up, sort of a talking head, there's no substance. And then portals like intranets, even though that's the business we're in, we do find that employees don't always participate in that infrastructure or that frameworks that businesses have in place.

And I think that the problem is that even though these channels exist in many organizations, they don't actually address the root of the problem. And they're very easy avenues for executives to use to feel that they're actually engaging their workforce, but it's really having the opposite effect. So internal comms people are spending a lot of time messaging, crafting content, trying to find new ways to keep people reading those newsletters and listening to what the leadership has to say. But I think they're actually not really getting to the core of the pain that employees are feeling as it relates to engagement.

Chuck: And I wonder too if we, and I guess I can put myself guilty as part of this, we've sort of lumped internal communications and employee engagement together. We sort of put them either side by side or integrated together when in fact we're seeing that those are two very different components, very different functions. Maye one can impact the other, but it's certainly not going to necessarily drive the other.

Bev: Absolutely. And I do see them as being very distinct. Certainly engagement is almost, it's the outcome of the role of the communicators. So the communicators are the vehicle for the messages that allow people to feel and become more engaged.

And I think that there's so much noise in all of our respective worlds at the moment, and employees are just disengaging because the messages that they are receiving is just more noise. That doesn't make them feel more connected in the way that William Con back in the '90s suggested that we all need to feel in the workplace. And I think that's going to become more and more pressing for the communicators and for leaders, to really understand how to connect with employees on a very human level and there are basic needs that need to be met in the workplace in order for people to feel engaged.

Chuck: And staying on that path a little bit, everybody wants to feel that their work matters, or think that their work matters. If you're in healthcare, if you're in hospitality, if you're in manufacturing, you want to feel that what you do is making a difference. I think that's a common thread across any industry when it comes to employees. And this is where I think, we talk about a gap, when I looked at the numbers for those that do think their work does matter, their engagement level was more than twice what those who think their work doesn’t matter.

Bev: Absolutely, yes. So we found a positive correlation between employees feeling that their work matters and their level of engagement. And the inverse was true too. We weren't surprised to find that those who had a low opinion of their work mattering were also, had very low levels of engagement.

And while the positive numbers, so 6.2 out of 10 is a positive number, it's certainly not what we'd call ecstatic. It does suggest that there is very real opportunity to move the needle on engagement by focusing on employee believe that their work matters.

So instead of checking boxes in communications checklist, execs and their communications teams should be focusing on creating and sharing messages that explain and illustrate the purpose of the organization. And I think they really need to start answering the "why should I care" and "what's in it for me" questions that employees ask. Because if you don't think that your work matters to the business that you work for, it's very easy to understand that you are not going to be committed to meeting your goals or executing on your tasks, or being part of the team, or even showing up in a very positive way in your organization.

Chuck: I agree with you. I think this is a chance where communicators and executives can step up. This shows this is a clear, identified problem. And even those who think their work matters, the score is low. But I think it shows employees, and I guess you could say what does "matters" mean. Is it that they don't feel that their work is valued, do they not have line of sight? Do they understand what role they play in an organization?

These are all questions that execs and communicators can help answer and then shape content to help employees feel better about, maybe they didn't understand that by doing these five things they do every day, this is the end result that it might have for a customer. I think creating that line of sight and helping the employees connect the dots, as you said, whether it's visually or through stories, could definitely help change the story.

Bev: Absolutely. And I think linking engagement to purpose, and part of purpose is why do I matter and why am I here every day, why do I show up to work. This linkage to engagement, to purpose, actually brings executives and employees together around a common cause or good.

So it is a way for that gap to be bridged, and I think one of the very interesting other topics that came out of our research was that the future of work and where we're headed as workplaces, and probably even at the macro level of society, is that the future of work is a focus on purpose. And as Brian Solis drove home in the white paper, without purpose there is no foundation for employee engagement.

So if you don't have a purpose, you can't engage anybody. You can't engage your employees, you can't engage your customers. So that's a very, very simple way for executives to start thinking about employee engagement. Instead of trying to think about these grand programs and all of these strategies for how you can engage your employees, you should first look at your purpose. It brings us back to, I don't know if you've had much to do with Simon Sinek and seen any of his material around the watch of what you do.

You've got to go back that core and understand what it is you do, and then bring your employees with you on that quest. And I think it's a little bit of actually stop trying to engage your employees and start talking to them and working with them in a very open, honest way, and in very human way, and I believe engagement will follow.

Chuck: Just had something pop into my head. I always try to keep things nice and simple. You said stop trying to engage your employees. Instead of engaging them, just be engaging. Be that where people want to be a part of it. I think you, it was in the paper, you put in this great quote from Rebecca Ray. And very recently for me, it's one of those things I knew corporate culture was important. It's a big part of who a company is, both to employees, the customers and the community. But recently I have discovered how important culture is for me as an individual.  

And so, the quote is, "The culture you create or the culture you destroy will determine the success of your business." So my question to you is in an engagement conversation, are we under-appreciating culture?

Bev: The culture topic is an interesting one and I think, similar to engagement, it has many, many different definitions and people feel different levels of connections or understanding to what culture actually is. And when we looked at our data, because we do feel that culture has a role to play in how engaged employees feel, and in our data we found that only 20% of the employees within the group or within the cohort that we studied, felt that the organization has a vibrant, positive culture.

And then it wasn't surprising further to find that there was strong correlation between how vibrant and positive you feel your culture is and your level of engagement. So if only 20% of our group felt that their organization has a positive culture, I do think we are under-appreciating the impact that a positive culture have on building meaningful engagement. And it opens up tremendous avenues of opportunity for how executives can actually work on building a culture that leads to more engaged employees.

And it's interesting, the culture piece is one of four key factors that we identified coming out of the survey as being highly correlated with employee engagement. And there are things like respect for leadership, pride in working for your company and a belief that your work matters, which we've already touched on. And what I found is quite interesting that in your conversation with Nick Howard from Edelman in your previous podcast, he was talking about the outcomes of the trust barometer.

I found it quite interesting that there were many overlaps in his position and where he was coming from with looking at trust and specifically as it relates to employee advocacy and how employees feel about their organization. It's part of the same conversation, whether you look at it from a trust angle, whether you looking at it from the engagement angle. It's all about how do you make your employees feel about being connected to your organization.

And there are many very easy ways or things that you can do to actually help your employees feel a greater connection to you and thereby feel more engaged. And what we decided to do after we published the white paper, which is basically a survey study, we felt that we needed a practical guide that would actually help our readers take the findings from the white paper and actually apply it in a very practical, actionable way.

So we've actually created an e-book which is partner piece to the white paper, and we're calling it "Bridging the Engagement Gap." And it's the handbook to the engagement gap white paper if you will, and we're quite excited about being able to offer some really consumable information that folks like internal communicators can take it into their businesses and apply right away. And we're really hoping that people will find it useful and interesting, and if nothing else, just continue the dialogue about this very important topic.

Chuck: So go ahead and direct listeners to where they can download the engagement gap white paper, the e-book and obviously, learn more about Jostle.

Bev: Sure. So they can go to www.jostle.me, which is J-O-S-T-L-E, .me/engagement-gap. They can also go to our blog, which has a ton of great resources around employee engagement including both articles on the white paper and the e-book, and they can download both of those from the blog. And our blog address is blog.jostle.me.

Chuck: Perfect. Well thank you for that wonderful conversation, Bev. I think again it certainly re-frames the engagement conversation n a new way for people to show that it's not just a situation with employees, but there's that disconnect and that gap between the way executives are viewing engagement and employees are viewing engagement. I just thought it was very intelligent view of that topic, so I applaud Jostle and Brian for going through that exercise.

Chuck: Well Bev, I want to thank you again for being a guest on ICology and sharing the research and the stories and advice that you have.

ICology is a listening post for communicators, a place for them to hear stories from professionals like you who can inspire them to be better communications, because I think we can all be better communicators. Please follow ICology on Twitter at @LearnICology to pick up show announcements as well as other IC news and tidbits. If internal communications is your passion, ICology is your podcast. Thanks for listening in.